Fuses (1967, Carolee Schneemann; Cinematographer: Stan Vanderbeek)
Can a woman’s sexuality truthfully be represented by a male artist? Childbirth, one of the most intimate moments a woman can have, became the subject of Stan Brakhage’s 1959 short, Window Water Baby Moving, which depicted the live birth of his first child. Through the male lens, Brakhage’s film depicts the masculine response to a feminine act (he even went so far as to make another childbirth film in 1961, stating that Window didn’t accurately portray how he saw the birth). He made a man’s film.
Carolee Schneemann’s desire for a woman’s viewpoint of sexuality in the film world led to Fuses, a twenty minute exploration of heteronormative intercourse, set to the soothing noise of a lapping tide, and marred by heavy mutilation of the celluloid. The woman in the film in Shneemann herself; the man is her then partner, James Tenney. Cunnilingus and fellatio are performed amid a flurry of burn marks and abrasions. Genitals are spread and explored in dark isolation from their bodies. A close up captures Schneemann’s face as she comes, her eyes closed in her own private oblivion. Nature scenes break up the fucking. Schneemann, nude, runs on the beach.
The film is over, under, and double exposed, chopped, and spliced to bits, and what’s left, though erotic, is more a feeling about sexuality than anything resembling typical pornography. A flaccid cock, bathed in red light is robbed of the potent violence it can convey when erect, and instead blurs into abstraction. Often, Schneemann and cinematographer Stan Vanderbeek obscure and layer the bodies so deftly, as during an extreme close-up of Tenny’s scrotum (insert Tobias Funke joke here), that it’s almost impossible to determine what is being shown at all. Curves look like landscapes, and in turn, the shots of nature, shrubbery, siloes, the ebb and flow of the water, pulse with quiet sensual beats. If this is the female portrait of sex, it’s a hypnotically calming one. Then there is the title, Fuses, suggesting not only the word as erotic signifier, but also as a conceptual idea of placid “oneness” that exists within the work, between woman and man, nature and woman, and even nature and the idea of the sex act.
Is this a purely feminine vision? I, obviously, can’t know, though Vanderbeek’s significant contribution and Schneemann’s over reliance on Brakhage’s formal techniques, even mimicking Brakhage’s meditative silence with her own soothing tide noise, suggest not. Though, perhaps there is no pure feminine vision, not in film anyway. Writing or painting as a medium can be the outlet of the individual, but filmmaking will always be a collaborative process, of tens, or hundreds, or thousands of people coming together to make something great, men and woman of all types hidden behind a single eye. A fusing. If you will.